Weighing the ‘risk factor’

Don’t call it a second wave. Most experts are saying that Europe is still in the grips of wave one, as while cases had been significantly reduced over the past couple of months the virus had not been effectively eliminated, and thus the spike in recent weeks in many European countries is part of the […]

Don’t call it a second wave. Most experts are saying that Europe is still in the grips of wave one, as while cases had been significantly reduced over the past couple of months the virus had not been effectively eliminated, and thus the spike in recent weeks in many European countries is part of the same motion. Whatever you call it, the evidence from across the continent is indeed worrying.

Spain’s rate has increased almost seven-fold since early July to almost 2,000 cases a day. Romania and Belgium are also seeing a worryingly quick climb, as is Croatia, albeit from a very low starting point. France, Germany and Italy’s rate of growth is smaller but still heading in the wrong direction. The UK’s official ‘R’ rate is between 0.7-0.9 but that is slightly deceptive; Cambridge’s MCR Biostatistics Unit estimates that in most parts of England the ‘R’ rate is close to 1 – the danger point – and they estimate around 3,000 new infections a day.

What about Scotland? There were 22 new confirmed cases yesterday, 0.7 per cent of those tested. That includes a new cluster identified by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, linked to a pharmacy in Inverclyde and an Amazon warehouse in Gourock. Nine cases were identified in Scottish care homes on 28 July. 96 positive cases were identified over the past week, with eight deaths and three hospital admissions. The last official estimation of the ‘R’ rate in Scotland, on 17 July, was between 0-6-0.9. While the improvement is clear, the virus has not been eliminated and significant risk remains. 

Where does that leave lockdown easing? The Scottish Government is expected to announce today the full re-opening of schools on 11 August. Education Secretary John Swinney has admitted that the enhanced testing regime for schools “might not be ready” by 11 August. Secondary schools are advised to try to limit contact between pupils, but “subject always to this not reducing capacity within the school”. Considering that the increases in cases in many European countries is centred on young people, this is cause for concern. While Swinney is right to say that the data suggests young people are least at harm from Covid-19, that does not stop them being spreaders, especially if they are far less likely to have any symptoms and thus be aware that they have the virus. In Belgium, with 279 new cases a day, the prime minister is talking about the start of the new school year being delayed.

As for the importation of cases, the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 advisory body has warned that overseas students travelling in September for the start of the Higher Education year is a “risk factor”. And the debacle over Scotland’s Spanish travel quarantine shows the dangers of opening up too soon when it comes to holidays. Oddly, the SNP’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson at Westminster, Alyn Smith, is pressing the UK Government to remove quarantine restrictions to the Canary Islands, despite an up-tick (albeit smaller) there as well. The Canary Islands also has reduced contact tracing capacity, with just one case traced for every six positives. Smith’s intervention sends out a mixed message about priorities at a time when clarity is needed.

The next two months is likely to be key for Scotland. Schools re-opening and increased flight activity pose two major risk factors. While the Scottish Government has won plaudits for the fast reduction in cases since May to low levels, the overall excess death rate remains in the top bracket in Europe and it has not yet reached its target of effective elimination. If August and September are mismanaged, and there is community transmission as the colder weather sets in, it could be a very bad winter. If elimination really is the aim, now is the time to throw everything at it.

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